Can you discipline staff members or even dismiss them for having a workplace relationship?

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Can you discipline staff members or even dismiss them for having a workplace relationship?

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Can you discipline staff members or even dismiss them for having a workplace relationship?

On Monday it was confirmed that McDonald’s Chief Executive (Steve Easterbrook) had been dismissed for violating company policy because he had “demonstrated poor judgement involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee”. So, is a dismissal in these circumstances fair, and is it ok to discipline or even dismiss a staff member for having a workplace relationship? 

Well... it depends on the facts! Any line of discipline that leads to a subsequent dismissal will be subject to a fair process, and the outcome of each case will be highly dependent on its own facts. In other words, no two cases are the same, and everything must be taken into consideration. Ultimately, however, workplace romances are inevitable, and they happen every day; so in the ordinary course of business, employers should think very carefully about disciplining their staff or even dismissing them because of having a workplace relationship. Under the Human Rights Act, all employees have rights to a private and family life, and this includes their personal relationships, so any policy that might impose on that right would no doubt be problematic for any employer. The bottom line is that employers will need to consider how best to balance these rights with the broader interests of their business, particularly when implementing a policy that may require the disclosure of a workplace relationship or even put a ban on this altogether. The issue will be whether the workplace relationship creates a genuine conflict of interest and/or leads to conduct, which is prejudicial to the employer and its business.

In the case of Mr Easterbrook, he was in a very high position within the company and had in fact breached the company’s “Standards Policy” which prohibits dating or sexual relationships between employees who have a “direct or indirect reporting relationship”. It advises any employee who might potentially violate the policy to speak with an HR Representative or a Director of the Company. Whilst we are not privy to all of the facts of this case, it is more feasible to see why such behaviour may have led to Mr Easterbrook’s dismissal, given his position of seniority and the policy that was in place. The circumstances of each case will, of course, differ greatly and come down to whether or not it was necessary to protect the interests of the business in that way. If workplace relationships are poorly managed, this could lead to issues such as poor productivity or a conflict of interest, and it is understandable that employers will want to manage the risk of this happening. 

Employers should be advised to safeguard their policies to ensure they do not give rise to a discrimination claim under the Equality Act. They would also be best placed to introduce policies which ensure dignity and respect at work and prevent behaviour such as sexual harassment and bullying if these are not in place already.  

In need of advice about a workplace relationship or implementing adequate policies that protect your business interests? 

Please contact Kirsty on 0117 939 0350 or email kjh@watkinssolicitors.co.uk.

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